DETROIT – Tuesday, March 25 was an exciting day for Mitch Callahan, who made his NHL debut when the Red Wings took on the Columbus Blue Jackets in what was then considered a battle of Eastern Conference playoff contenders.
It was a hugely important game in the standings for both clubs, who eventually filled both wild-card positions in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Callahan, who grew up playing roller hockey in southern California, approached the experience as if it was his last.
“You’re never guaranteed a career in the NHL, so this could be my only game I ever have, so I’m going to take it all in and try to remember the most I can of it,” the 22-year-old right wing said before the game. “I’m just going to stick with what I’m doing because whatever I was doing in Grand Rapids got me here. I’m not going to change anything up, going to play the same way I have been playing, try my best to make sure this isn’t the last game I ever play.”
Ice hockey has made several inroads into California but it’s still viewed as a monumental achievement when a California kid reaches his hockey dream of playing in the NHL. At the time of Callahan’s debut, there were only five other California-born players in the league – Pittsburgh forward Beau Bennett, Anaheim forward Emerson Etem, Washington center Casey Wellman, Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik and Minnesota defenseman Jonathan Blum.
Callahan, from the city of Whittier – which is southeast of Los Angeles – made Hockeytown history, becoming the first California-born player, who was drafted by, and played for, the Red Wings. He was just the 30th California player in league history.
“It’s pretty surreal, with 30 guys playing in the NHL from California,” said Callahan, who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2009. “It’s pretty cool. … Lot of guys in NHL from California are my friends. It’s a pretty tight-knit hockey group down there.”
Callahan was originally called up Monday, March 24 to play in place of Todd Bertuzzi, who had missed the club’s previous game with the flu. But coach Mike Babcock indicated that both players would be in the lineup, and that Callahan would be the eighth Red Wings’ rookie to make his NHL debut that season, joining forwards Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Teemu Pulkkinen, and defensemen Adam Almquist, Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko.
Before his debut, Callahan erupted for a career-best 24 goals through 65 games with the Griffins, surpassing the 23 tallies he collected in his final junior season at Kelowna in the Western Hockey League. He’s a right-handed shot, and played on the fourth line with Joakim Andersson and Darren Helm.
Injuries were catastrophic for the Red Wings last season, who hadn’t seen that many young players make their league debuts for the franchise since 1990-91, when 14 rookies – Tom Bissett, Par Djoos, Sergei Fedorov, Dave Gagnon, Johan Garpenlov, Scott King, Gord Kruppke, Chris Luongo, Bill McDougall, Marc Potvin, Keith Primeau, Gary Shuchuk, Mike Sillinger and Bob Wilkie – played in their first league games. That season, only Steve Yzerman and Shawn Burr appeared in all 80 games when injuries forced the Red Wings to use a club-record 45 different players, including six goalies.
Callahan was the 37th player to dress for the Red Wing last season, which is the most since the same number of players appeared in the 1991-92 campaign.
A player who’s never shied from the rough stuff, Callahan, who averaged more than 127 penalty minutes over the past five seasons, developed his game under the tutelage of Griffins coach Jeff Blashill.
“It’s kind of funny because you look at the all the goals, none of them are real pretty,” Callahan said. “Just screening in front of the net, working hard in front of the net. I think I got four or five where the D shot it and it hit me. Just from working hard in front of the net and stirring it up and working hard.
“Not necessarily changing my style. Blash really wants me to have a better role on the team so fighting sometimes has to wait when you’re playing top-two line minutes and that’s OK. But that’s what got drafted in the NHL, my agitating and fighting ways. Hopefully I can do a little bit of both when I was here.”
Callahan finished the AHL regular season with the Grand Rapids Griffins with 26 goals and 18 assists and a plus-23 rating.